I’ve missed you, Spot.

Dear Word Detective:  Painters and others interested in the coating of surfaces use the term “holiday” to describe a “missed spot.” What is the origin of the term? — John Weiss.

That’s a new one on me. Incidentally, this seems a good time to announce that I have discovered what I believe, based on extensive research, to be the most annoying phrase in the English language. Yes, I know most people would regard my quest for such a linguistic irritant as strange and anti-social, but no one who knows me well will be very surprised. Anyway, the phrase is “You missed a spot.” Anyone cleaning anything, painting anything, paving anything (road crews are especially grateful when I slow down to let them know), or doing just about anything that has a beginning and an end, always secretly appreciates hearing that they’re further from the end than they had thought. It’s usually not true, of course, but, since folks almost always stop to check, I like to think I’m doing my part to help them ensure the integrity of their work product. I just wish they wouldn’t throw things at me.

There’s an interesting twist in the early history of “holiday,” and it’s a distinction we still sometimes make in how we use the word. Our modern “holiday” comes from the Old English “haligdaeg,” which simply combined “halig” (“holy”) and “daeg” (“day”) into one word. But “haligdaeg” was used mean both “a consecrated day or religious festival” and “a day on which ordinary activities and work are suspended; a day of festivities,” i.e., a largely secular day off. To avoid confusion, “haligdaeg” was used to mean the secular occasions and “halig daeg,” two words, signified the religious “holy days.” This distinction has carried over into modern English, where we have used, since about the 16th century, “holiday” in a broad sense but “holy day” in only a religious sense.

“Holiday” went on, of course, to acquire a wide variety of more general and figurative meanings, ranging from simply “a break from routine” to the jocular use of the word to mean “imprisonment” (“A sentence of a month or two … a little ‘holiday’ with food and shelter and warmth,” 1901). One of the notable British English uses of the word that strikes many Americans as odd is the use of “holiday” to mean what we would call a “vacation” (“Blair spent one summer holidays with his mother Lady Mary, at Spa,” 1825).

The use of “holiday” to mean “a missed spot” appears to be that rarity in English etymology, a word or phrase that actually has a nautical origin. The original use of “holiday” in the “missed a spot” sense, back in the 18th century, was in reference to crew members painting the decks of a ship or “paying” (sealing seams with tar or pitch) its hull. “Paying” (from the Middle French “poier,” to smear with pitch) in particular was an arduous, intensely unpleasant task, so even a small missed spot could be, sardonically, considered a “holiday” (“A holiday is any part of a ship’s bottom, left uncovered in paying it,” Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785).

This use was later generalized to cover a missed spot in any task, including daily household chores (“Holidays: parts left untouched in dusting. ‘Don’t leave any holidays.'” Jago, Dialect of Cornwall, 1882). Of course, if you leave enough “holidays” in the wake of your  assigned task, whether it’s dusting, accounting or paving, you might soon find oneself on a permanent “holiday.” So I’m actually doing folks a favor by pointing out the spots they’ve missed, right?

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